A Party 9 years in the Making

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A cup nine years in the winning. A party nine years in the making. A blog nine years in the writing. The wait is over. Arsenal have a trophy again. And it feels fantastic.

We didn’t do it the easy way, of course. As soon as the match kicked off, Hull played with an fierce abandon that was in stark contrast to a nervy, brittle Arsenal. Even by our standards, conceding two goals within the opening eight minutes made for a bafflingly inept opening. The decision to start Lukasz Fabianski — one which I still consider sentimental rather than sensible — might have been looked upon rather less kindly had Arsenal not mustered a gripping fight-back. Fabianski was not individually culpable for the goals, but the defence looked unsettled by the absence of the regular No. 1.

It could have got even worse. A Kieran Gibbs clearance on the line prevented Arsenal from going three goals down. A deficit of that size might have proved insurmountable. That clearance will rank alongside Gibbs’ last day, last-ditch tackle at West Brom as one of his finest contributions in an Arsenal shirt.

A goal before half-time was vital to transform the game from a capitulation to at least a contest. Fortunately, Santi Cazorla produced a stunning free-kick to find the top corner from fully 25 yards. As Cup Final goals go, this was special — a strike to rival the Ray Parlours of this world. Quite the honour.

However, crucial though Santi’s strike was, the momentum didn’t really swing in our favour until around the hour mark. Arsene Wenger withdrew Lukas Podolski and put on Yaya Sanogo. I must admit, I wasn’t convinced by the switch at the time, but adding a second striker to supplement Olivier Giroud immediately increased our attacking threat. He’s still more raw than steak tartar — a brute without the ball and Bambi with it. Nevertheless, his physical presence and fearlessness made him an effective sub. The manager has spoken about Sanogo’s enormous reserves of determination and self-belief, and both were evident in this FA Cup Final. After switching to 4-4-2 in both the semi and final of this competition, one wonders if Wenger is toying with the idea of deploying that formation more regularly next season.

The identity of the two scorers who overturned Hull’s lead should come as no real surprise.  Laurent Koscielny has a remarkable knack of scoring vital goals. In each of the past three seasons, he has notched in the games that have seen Arsenal secure fourth place. This weekend, he topped that by finding the net in an FA Cup Final.

And then came extra-time, and the winner. It was always going to be Aaron Ramsey. There should have been no doubt. This was always his season. Even an absence of four months couldn’t prevent him from carving Arsenal’s 2013/14 campaign in his own image. A clever backheel from Giroud, a well-timed run and a nonchalant flick of the right boot saw the bottom corner bulge. Arsenal fans screamed out a decade of frustration. The party had begun.

And what a party. I suppose it was inevitable that, after such a long wait, the club would celebrate in style. The scenes on the pitch were jubilant. Even Arsene Wenger took off his tie and embraced the gleeful atmosphere. Kieran Gibbs shed a couple of tears, Bacary Sagna was locked in prayer, and Sanogo appeared to have taken a particularly exotic collection of hallucinogenic drugs.

This party wasn’t confined to North London either. What has come home in the aftermath of this game is quite how big Arsenal are. This victory united a family that stretches right across the globe. The parade in North London was rivaled by equally raucous scenes in supporters clubs in America, Asia and beyond. Last time we lifted a cup, Twitter didn’t even exist. Now, the ecstasy is indulged and shared with fans flung to the world’s four corners. We’re all Gunners, and this weekend we were all winners.

It means so much to so many. To younger fans who probably don’t remember the last time we touched silverware. To younger players, for whom this was a first major triumph. Gibbs’ tears reflected the culmination of childhood dream.

I thought of Tomas Rosicky, who has waited so long for this moment, and Bacary Sagna, who has punctuated his Arsenal career with a shining silver exclamation mark that ensures his place of history.

And I thought of Arsene Wenger. My opinion on the manager’s future has fluctuated somewhat this season. His stubbornness frequently drives me mad. However, what’s never changed has been my desire to see him crowned a winner again. It’s eminently possible to be frustrated by someone’s obstinate ways, but love them dearly. I know I feel that way about most of my own family. Seeing him sing and dance on the podium gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling that I haven’t experienced for some time. Nine years, probably.

Few could have anticipated quite how good it’d feel. The truth is, you forget. With each passing year, you console yourselves with familiar platitudes: “you can’t win them all”, “we’re doing well given our resources”, even the occasional “fourth is almost like a trophy”. It’s not. There’s nothing like being able to call yourselves Champions of a major competition.

Arsenal is about a lot of things — I’ve already alluded to the amazing community that surrounds our club. However, a look at our story tells you it’s also about glory. It’s about history. It’s about transitory moments of elation that create indelible memories.

That’s what we achieved at Wembley, and it’s what we ought to be constantly chasing. Sometimes, it’s seemed like the board had forgotten what that felt like. Maybe the manager, too. Time — and a shifting of priorities — had dulled their memory of the euphoria victory can invoke. A good deal of the players simply didn’t know any better: it wasn’t a sensation they were familiar with — until now. Now they know what the prize feels like. They know what they’re playing for. They know what it is to be winners.

You can only hope the’ve got the taste for it. I know I have.

Red, Yellow & Silver: Gunnerblog’s FA Cup Final Preview

We’ve waited nine years for this.

This week, I looked back at the blog I wrote after 2005’s FA Cup win over Manchester United. That was the last time Arsenal touched silverware. Think about that: nine years. In the 125-year lifespan of the club, it’s not a massive stretch. However, us fans are only here for threescore and ten. In the course of our own individual lives, it’s a significant period.

Think of what you’ve done in the last nine years. Ponder what’s changed since. 2005 was the year Youtube was launched. Lance Armstrong retired a champion, not a cheat. Twitter didn’t even exist.

Today, Arsenal have a chance to end the wait. It’s a good chance, too. Hull City are a decent team and will play unshackled by expectation, but we are the overwhelming favourites for a reason. Play as we can, and we ought to win.

The same, of course, was true in 2011. I was at Wembley to see Arsenal lose to Birmingham City in that fateful final. It set our on-pitch progress back by several years. Having clawed our way back to this point, we cannot afford to let a trophy slip through our fingers once again.

I haven’t blogged much in the last few weeks of the season. That’s partly because of the demands of other work. It’s also because I’ve felt a bit underwhelmed by it. As Everton fell away, our games ceased to carry much weight. There was a certain ‘end of term’ vibe about the whole thing. Abou Diaby’s cameo at Norwich felt like the football equivalent of when my history teacher used to let us watch Blackadder in the final lesson of the year.

Today, the stakes are cranked right up again. That’s what sports about. Drama and tension; failure and glory. Arsenal need this. The club have spun a story about enduring a difficult period in order to facilitate future glory. We’re supposedly at the turning point, where prudence begins to pay dividends. A trophy would be proof of concept.

I won’t be there today. Other commitments will keep me from Wembley. But wherever you’re watching the final, I hope the team give you a match and a day to savour.

I leave you with this film. I dare you to watch it without feeling sick with nerves and excitement. The players have a remarkable opportunity to write themselves in to folklore today. Who wants to be the next Charlie George, Alan Sunderland or Ray Parlour?

Don’t make us wait another year.

Extra reading:

My interview with Wojciech Szczesny for Bleacher Report

Looking back at the Hammers, ahead to Hull, and up at Liverpool

The win over West Ham was huge. After being put through the wringer in the semi-final, a physical Allardyce team were hardly the ideal opposition. When we fell behind, the collective intake of breath was almost audible.

However, Lukas Podolski’s instant response settled nerves. Goals from Giroud and Podolski again later settled the game. The German’s record is pretty remarkable. His 10 goals this season have come in about 1197 minutes. That’s roughly 13.3 “games”. The figures aren’t distorted by cup goals either. In the Premier League, he boasts a record of six goals in 9.3 games. He is absolutely lethal.

I understand that he doesn’t quite fit in to our system, but our system is hardly pulling up any trees is it? Podolski’s efficiency in the final third is approaching the point whereby it justifies experimenting with a formation that suits him better. It would be intriguing to see how he would get on in a front two, absolved of a degree of defensive responsibility.

A good week got better when Everton lost to Crystal Palace. As an Arsenal fan, it causes me great pain to credit Tony Pulis with a pretty remarkable job down in South London. A positive result away to Hull will put us firmly in the driving seat as far as fourth place is concerned. With Everton still to face the two Manchester clubs, a four-point lead will feel pretty comfortable.

Never mind a four-point lead over fifth: if Liverpool beat Norwich tomorrow, they’ll open up a five-point advantage over the rest of the Premier League.

I can’t be the only Arsenal fan looking at Liverpool and thinking it ought to have been us. If they do go on to win the title, as looks increasingly likely, it will be confirmation that this league was there for the taking. United, City and Chelsea have all had their problems this season. It was a unique opportunity to snatch the big prize, we were in poll position, and we surrendered it.

Yes, they’ve benefited from a lack of European fixtures. But they’ve also built a truly title-challenging team without the lure and financial boon of the Champions League. We had both of those things at our disposal, and yet we’ve failed to match them.

Yes, we’ve had injuries. But we knew about the problems with both Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott well before the close of the January transfer window, and did nothing.

From the first months of the season, it was clear this season presented a unique opportunity for a dark horse to snatch the league. Arsenal fumbled, and Liverpool seem poised to pick it up. We needed to gamble, but in what would become a recurring theme, we lacked the balls.

It’s like Liverpool have been sent to show us what we ought to have done. They’ve invested ambitiously, fought tooth-and-nail to keep hold of their best players, and played with style and courage.

They also, not too long ago, replaced an ageing legend with an upwardly-mobile young manager. Increasingly, I think Arsenal may have to do the same this summer. Regarding Arsene’s future, it suddenly struck me the other day: have we all missed the obvious?

If Arsene is staying, why hasn’t he signed? He’s had ample opportunity to do so throughout the season. If it was a question of PR timing, surely the optimum time to announce a new deal would have been either side of the Christmas period, when Arsenal topped the table?

I can’t remember when it was now, but after one of his contract renewals Arsene spoke about the importance of offering security and certainty to the team. Surely that would have proved beneficial this season, too. And yet the manager has resisted.

A few years back, he spoke about his intention to quit management before retirement age. He’ll be 65 in October. When Arsene said after the semi-final that the result of the final would have no bearing on his future, I immediately felt his mind was already made up. And then much of the above crystallised in a moment of what felt like clarity.

Bacary Sagna hasn’t signed his new deal, and it’s led many of us to conclude that he’s definitely leaving. Apply the same logic to Arsene, and you can only reach one conclusion.

I’m only speculating, and you’re all entitled to point and laugh when Arsene announces his new deal on Monday morning. I just wonder if our heads have been in the sand all season long, when the obvious has been hammering on the ground desperately trying to get our attention.

Anyway. Hull next. Time to tame the Tigers.

Thoughts from Wembley: Torturous afternoon’s Final flourish

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I don’t know about you, but I remembered reaching an FA Cup final as a good deal more fun.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted to be there — and being there is undoubtedly what matters — but the journey was as torturous as a coach ride with that Man City fan in the Barclays ad.

Let’s focus on the positives: however shoddily, the job got done. A positive result in the final will vanquish any traumatic memories of the painful semi. In recent weeks, Arsenal have been criticised for a failure to grind out results on the big stage. Yesterday, they managed exactly that.

A penalty shootout is a test of technique. However, it’s also a test of nerve. It was to my considerable surprise that Arsenal passed that particular test with flying colours. Settled by the confidence and competence of Lukasz Fabianski, our takers executed their kicks perfectly.

I was chuffed too for Per Mertesacker, who would have been hugely unfortunate to have been cast as the scapegoat in the event of an Arsenal defeat. A mistimed lunge led to the Wigan penalty, but he eradicated the error with the crucial equalising goal. It was a better finish than it looked: Mertesacker had to twist his body quickly to direct the header in to the near post.

Whatever you might hear or read elsewhere, our celebrations were justified. We’ve reached our first FA Cup Final in nine years, and have a fantastic chance to end a protracted wait for silverware. There was joy, and there was enormous relief. Stranded in the press box, I crumpled over my desk, exhausted. In the cup, results are everything. We had what we needed.

If all you’re interested in is basking in the promise of a return to Wembley on May 17th, I understand entirely. It’s probably best you stop reading now. I won’t begrudge you: I’m about to take a sip from my editorial glass which will take it from just over half-full to a little under half-empty.

The uncomfortable truth is that I saw little yesterday to convince me that that the chasmic flaws in the side are anywhere closer to being fixed.

We were dreadful. The team looked devoid of imagination, robbed of courage and drained of energy. After 120 minutes, we were held 1-1 by a team from the division below. It was hardly encouraging. Reaching the FA Cup Final is undoubtedly a good achievement, but avoiding defeat to a Championship team is primarily a disaster averted.

The decision to start Yaya Sanogo looked questionable before kick-off. By half-time, it looked plain absurd. I felt sorry for a player who is clearly not ready to be playing for a club of our stature. Going by some of the furious gesticulating when Wenger chose to replace Podolski rather than Sanogo, some of his team-mates feel the same way.

By the time the game entered its last 20 minutes of normal time, I was physically shaking with the enormity of what was unfolding before me. Make no mistake: Arsene was within 10 minutes of being forced to leave Arsenal on a sombre note. What’s more, he looked powerless to do much about it. It was grim viewing.

After the game, a journalist joked that I should ask Arsene what the plan was against Wigan. There’s no point answering a question to which there is no discernible answer.

I’m delighted we’ve made it to the final, particularly because it ensures an opportunity for a glorious finish for a manager who has served this club with remarkable distinction. Arsene was asked after the game if the result of the final would have any bearing on his future. His response was curt and immediate: “No”. Increasingly, I feel his mind is made up. Perhaps he, like me, thinks it could be time for a change — regardless of what happens when we return to Wembley.

Everton 3 – 0 Arsenal: Is it over?

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Is it over?

Not the title race. That’s been over for a while. Not the “race for fourth”, either. That’s got a good way to go, and looking at the respective fixture lists, I still fancy us to come out on top of Everton.

No: the operative *it* in this instance is the reign of Arsene Wenger. After this latest capitulation, serious questions have to be asked about his suitability to take the team in to next season — regardless of what happens between now and May. Truth be told, I happen to think we’ll make the top four. Call me crazy, but I still think we’ll win the FA Cup too. But that doesn’t assuage all my fears about the manager.

Wenger was comprehensively outmaneuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. It started with the team-sheets. We persisted with a midfield that hasn’t really functioned properly for several weeks now. All the evidence suggests we’re better when we employ the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank, yet Wenger continued with his bizarre policy of selecting both Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, with neither player seemingly asked to do any defensive work on the right-hand side. In a game in which a point would have been a good result for Arsenal, it’s tempting to call Wenger’s tactics naive. However, considering how long he’s been in the game, one has to revert to an altogether more damning adjective: negligent.

By contrast, Martinez made some bold selections, starting Steven Naismith as a false nine and Romelu Lukaku wide on the right. Naismith frequently dropped in to the area between Arsenal’s defence and midfield, becoming a natural pivot around whom the Belgian pair of Mirallas and Lukaku could buzz effectively. Arsenal didn’t have an answer.

At half-time, Arsenal were 2-0 down and not even in the contest, and yet Arsene Wenger didn’t make a single change. Arsenal needed an act of decisive leadership. Instead, inaction felt like surrender.

My mind cast back to the January transfer window. That was another time when Wenger needed to make a bold decision, and dithered. The consequences have been disastrous.

Arsenal were gutless against Everton. More worryingly, they were rudderless. Never mind a back-up plan — there didn’t appear to be any plan whatsoever.

I don’t want to diminish the achievements of the first half of the season. However, it could be argued we’ve only been able to stave off this kind of collapse due to vagaries of the fixture-generating system

Much has been made of our improvement. However, the stats show we’re now just four points better off than we were at this stage last season. The back-loaded nature of our fixture list has evened out our points tally, and the relative progress compares poorly with that made by the likes of Liverpool.

We’re fourth in the league, and that’s a pretty fair reflection of our ability. We’re good enough to beat pretty much everyone below us, and not really good enough to beat those above us. Your contentment with the manager largely depends on your acceptance of that status quo.

I’m in the camp that believes another manager could improve upon some of our existing issues. What worries me is that the team’s faults appear to be Arsene’s faults. There is a lack of attention to tactical detail, a chronic absence of depth in key positions, and a question of motivation. Those are all ultimately the manager’s responsibility.

Wenger’s contemporary failings don’t diminish his previous greatness. However, you’re only a revolutionary once, and Le Boss has never felt more replaceable than now.

Whichever way you slice it, he’s going sooner rather than later. Wenger doesn’t have another decade in him. Those who advocate stability have to face the fact that eventually, a change is going to come. With the manager’s contract at the point of expiry, now seems as good a time as any.

Looking back, his stalling tactics on his contract felt like a calculated game of brinkmanship with the fans. If the jeopardy of losing him increased, we might draw him closer to our collective bosom. Around Christmas, it seemed to be working. However, on the back of our recent collapse, the adverse effect has occurred. As the prospect of losing Arsene has moved closer, the idea has become increasingly palatable. Few fans are eager to sign up for three more years of this.

I’ve backed Wenger for a long time. If he chooses to stay on, he’ll retain my support. However, he must be wondering whether it’s time to hang up the sleeping bag/coat that has adorned him in recent years.

If Wenger loses the FA Cup semi-final next week, it’s indisputably over. Even if he wins the competition, it may be more of a celebratory send-off than cause for a new contract. It’s not over yet, but it feels like it’s accelerating towards a gloomy conclusion.

I don’t like it. But I’m not as scared of it as some.